Zen and the art of draft evaluation

Back in the 1970s, a couple of organizations evolved that would change the way we see and experience NFL football. They arose on the basis of a need  teams to share the expenses of having area scouts - in those days, they didn't want to have the costs of supporting their own organizations of scouting. The first of these is still known as 'BLESTO'. This originally stood for Bears Lions Eagles Steelers Organization and was formed in 1963. The Eagles are no longer associated with it, but it boasts a roster of 12 teams, including the Atlanta Falcons. The second was National Football Scouting, which is known by the contraction, "National" and currently has 15 teams associated with it that I've been able to uncover. Four teams use independents and/or their own organizations exclusively, including the New England Patriots who only uses their own.

Both of these organizations have their own system of nomenclature which leads to a total grade for the player. National, for example, uses a 1.0-8.0 scale with the higher number being a better grade. BLESTO goes the opposite route, with a 5.00 to 1.00 scale upon which the higher number is a better grade. In addition to these there are systems such as the ESPN system in which there are different grade areas such as production, durability, character, etc, in which the player receives a 5.0-1.0 grade, 1 being the highest, but adding to total grade for the player from 1-100.

This is an example of a common system - ESPN uses the basic BLESTO rankings but they then assess the player (well, their organization, Scouts Inc. does). Draft Insiders does essentially the same thing with college players and takes great pride in the fact that they rarely agree with BLESTO's final assessments. There are a wide variety of media outlets that also do some combination of using the evaluations of BLESTO and/or National and doing their own scouting. cbssports.com uses the scouting from National, as you can tell by their rating system of 1.0 to 8.0 on various categories including, using a quarterback as an example, poise, leadership, touch and pocket movement as well as a host of other assessments.

In addition to these approaches, most NFL clubs are using a combined system of purchasing BLESTO or National rankings and using their own scouts. Both BLESTO and National have been accused of 'skating' on major Division I school candidates but it's fair to say that they are still the backbone of many scouts basic information. Without providing an opinion on that specifically, it's sufficient to say that each team has specific, individual needs and can and should look differently at certain candidates as a result. For this reason, statements by media and fans alike that player Igor Frounobulax is a good _____ (fill in the blank) and therefore the Tallahassee Pinions (as well as all other teams with a hole at X position) should run and draft him are, at best, drastic overstatements. At their worst, they perpetuate the myth that NFL teams are all alike, have the same needs within the options at any position or should draft for nothing more than a list of highly-touted names. The actual process is far more detailed and involved.

Once a player analysis has been reached, by whatever combination of methods, he will receive a grade by the team and an analysis of how well he does or does not fit into the team's roster and/or plans. For this reason, any changes that are being made to the team's systems (and those on the Broncos are extensive and in degree, mysterious) will change this aspect of the grading, so any projects by media or fans can only be based on thoughts and conjecture. This last fact has been written on extensively, particularly by styg50 and Colinski; I can or will add nothing to their offerings. Finally, teams will change their level of interest based on their own interpretations of the interview process at the National Invitational Camp, which is the formal name for that week long job interview known colloquially as the Combine or even just 'Combine' (as in, 'Alfred Neelix was invited to Combine').

In that past, nycbroncosfan and I have done some research into Josh McDaniels' professional background as an offensive coordinator in order to consider the factors that might influence his decisions as head coach of the Broncos. We were quick to note that while past is, indeed, prelude, McDaniels may choose to go in new directions. The Broncos have used National for the past 5 years, for example, but 98% of the college scouting  they use is done entirely by the Broncos own scouting network, according to General Manager Brian Xanders. Given Coach McDaniels background, there are certain factors that go into player evaluations for the New England Patriots that Broncos fans may find interesting, especially if we see that seeping into the Broncos' system. With that in mind.....

The New England Patriots have a series of player manuals. These are not the 'playbook' - or, rather, they are the playbook of the personnel department. They were originally created for them by men like Bucky Kilroy and the late Dick Steinberg. Since that day, it has been updated and tweaked by Scott Pioli, now of the Kansas City Chiefs and Bil Belichick's longtime friend and right-hand man, Ernie Adams, to specifically outline the players that the New England Patriots want on their team. This system has been described as a marriage of art and science, instinct and intellect (Patriot Reign by Michael Holley, page 155). Given the history of their success in the draft and in free agency, it's worth taking a moment to consider the kinds of thought that they put into this system.

First, there is a system of twelve lower-case letters, each one representing a particular quality or issue that they consider important. These are known as alerts; a stands for age, c for character issues (bad ones), t is for special teams player (good) and tt for incredible special teams player (very good). x in this case stands for an injury concern. y means that there was a transfer in their college career, etc. Then there is a series of 13 letters in upper case. These also can be doubled if there is sufficient reason. A and A+ are, as you would expect, ranks of excellence, Q stands for 'vertically challenged', P is for a player who is projected to play a difference position in the pros than they did in college.

Following this group of rankings, the players are assigned a numerical grade that defines the role that they are thought to be looking at achieving  A grade of 9.00-9.99 (A+) means that the player may or is expected to make the Hall of Fame. An 8.00-8.99 grade is an 'A' player. There is also an 8.00-8.99 Q rating for a height-deficient player who will be excellent nonetheless. Next there is a circumstantial starter, one who will start right out of college but whose production in college has been limited by some (explained) factor. Those factors have to be accounted for in detail. This system goes in right down to 1.00, an NFL reject who is a waste of time.

This is not the end. In fact, this is merely the beginning - the Patriots then also grade the potential players from 1.0-9.0 in 3 different areas: major factors, critical factors and position skills. A 6.0 grade in any of these areas is the lowest that the Patriots will consider for any player. Within 'major factors' there are 7 subsections: personal behavior,athletic ability, strength and explosion, competitiveness, toughness, mental/learning (we know that McDaniels will not tolerate players who cannot learn quickly, as they just will not thrive in this system) and injury/durability. The categories and subsections that fall under critical factors and position skills are variable by position within the team. Beyond this, there is an extensive written manual on the attributes and qualities that are desired/required at each position. 

I have a section available from Patriot Reigns that describes the quarterback position. I have no doubt at all that Josh McDaniels is using this in his evaluations of both Kyle Orton and Chris Simms, as well as in the drafting of 6th round pick Tom Brandstater.

"A quarterback for the new England Patriots must make the right decisions and make them fast.  Just because a person is smart does not mean that they can make the right decisions under pressure." While that's certainly true, a quarterback in their system also has to pass a 6 page written examination in the week before a game that will show that they have grasped the key specifics that relate the the opponent of the week. Both intelligence and decision-making are required.

Here are some of the other things listed:

  1. Be the mentally toughest and hardest working player on the team.
  2. Be willing to take a big hit and then walk back into the huddle and call the next play
  3. Have his head screwed on straight enough to handle the pressure and scrutiny to which all NFL QBs are subjected

Finally, at the end of this section, they have a quote from the legendary quarterback Joe Montana: "If you want to know who the good quarterbacks are, watch the passes they complete under a heavy rush. Watch the first down they get on third and long, passing into heavy coverage. Listen to what their teammates say about them." It is said that Tom Brady is the embodiment of exactly what is on those pages.

Bill Belichick knows a lot about scouting players. His father Steve wrote a book on the subject. Bill's mother, a language expert, edited it so that the average reader could grasp what he said. When you read what the Patriots manual says about players, they talk about native intelligence, football smarts, character and leadership. In developing their specifics for scouting a player with a certain position in mind, they use a Pinnacle computer system that can call up any play that they've run, show you all of the plays by position,  type of direction, and give you all the information that you could use on what you've done, how you've done it, and where you've fallen short. These things are all taken together with the feedback and information of the scouts, position coaches and general manager of the team to create as accurate a picture as is possible of the precise player that will or could fulfill the needs of the team.

When we, as fans, talk about the draft, most of us (myself included) have a tendency to learn a few good or bad things about a player and to form a firm decision which our time watching film or games will often tend to support. It's a good things to consider the extensive compliation of information, film and interviews that really goes into choosing the players for your team. I don't have dertails of the Mike Shanahan/Ted Sundquist years. I have read things like Stefan Fatsis' book, in which he describes Shanahan fixating on a player and shutting out all input. I have no idea if that is true, or how often it might have happened. I did emerge from the past few years like a man from a dimly lit cave, dazzled at the light of possibilities around me. The more that I've learned about how the draft is done by Coach McDaniels former team, the more hopeful I am for the direction and outcome of the Broncos' picks.

I hope that the same kind of book is being written for the Broncos even as we speak (the possibility that McDaniels might just have a spare copy of the Patriots' manuals has not escaped me). But I can say this - when the Broncos do decide on a player, I know that it is at the end of a yearlong process. I know that they know the player, their tendencies and they best know possibility of their development. When I apply that standard to our draft class, how do I feel? I feel that we took players that we knew well and felt good about in terms of their character, skill and specific abilities at the position. Coming from such a detailed background, with an equally detail-minded approach of his own, Coach McDaniels now has to show us that these choices can manifest the qualities that he saw in them. 

Bring on Training Camp!

Originally posted at MHR

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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